NORMAN, Okla. —
There’s a new debate in paleontology, one that took me by surprise but that shows nicely how some science works.
There’s a particular type of ancient fossil called the “Ediacara fauna” found in rocks about 550 million years old. The term Ediacara is a reference to a place in Australia where the fossils were located and well-described. Similar fossils were found around the world at several locations.
The Ediacara fauna is made up of several types of small impressions left in what’s now solid rock. The impressions show simple life-forms that were flat like little pancakes or long like simple worms. They had no eyes and no legs but they were the first multicellular organisms to grace the Earth, so they were advanced forms of life in their day.
I was taught the simple little guys were animals that were flat or long because they needed to exchange gases through their skin and thus they needed considerable surface area to stay alive in the shallow seas in which they lived.
There has always been more than one way to interpret the Ediacara fauna. They may not have been animals, but perhaps lichens – an interesting life form that’s a combination of fungi and algae that help one another survive. Some paleontologists reject that view and have considered putting the Ediacara into their own “kingdom” in terms of the classification of life forms sketched by science – meaning the Ediacara were organisms that were quite unlike plants, animals, or fungi.
The limited information available from the trace impressions the Edicara left behind is what makes many different hypotheses possible. Some issues in science can be resolved by relatively clear-cut experiments in a laboratory. Paleontology isn’t like that, and unfortunately we don’t have time machines that would let us travel back to ancient times and study live and wiggling little Ediacara organisms. Instead we must do what we can with the samples of rocks and fossils we have.